Monday, October 21, 2019

242. Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s French/Israeli film “Synonymes” (Synonyms) (2019): A disturbing tale of extreme alienation and nihilism, contrasting the social realities of Israel with that of France

Synonyms’ protagonist Yoav (Tom Mercier) is an Israeli Jew who grew up with his parents in Israel and has been through the mandatory military training and perfected his skills to the extent he can shoot with his sophisticated automatic machine gun to rhyme with musical pieces just for the fun of it and even claims to have perforated Arab terrorists with his shooting skills. That was Yoav’s past, glimpses of which are briefly shown in the film. The Yoav you see for most of the 2 hour-long  Synonyms is a young man so disillusioned with his native land, his parents, his native tongues (Yiddish and Hebrew), and  the Israeli armed forces that he has chosen flee his country and start a new life in France by mastering the French language with the aid of a dictionary.

Yoav robbed of all his belongings
almost freezes to death in an empty apartment

While the original script, co-written by director Nadav Lapid and another individual named Haim Lapid (who might or might not be related), stresses Yoav’s alienation from Israel, Israelis expatriates in Paris seem to be able contact him and help him get a job to survive, after he is robbed of all his possessions. In spite of his professed hatred of anything Israeli, the job offered is ironically as a security guard at the Israel embassy in Paris, where Yoav responds in French, when spoken to in Yiddish by his colleagues. Yoav’s alienation is extended to his family as well. He tells his new French benefactors that his father is dead (when he is actually alive) and that his mother laughed loudly during his military service graduation ceremony. When his father travels to Paris to meet him and help him with monetary assistance, Yoav is rude towards him and refuses to speak with him.

Yoav (Tom Mercier) in a yellow coat with his French benefactors,
Emile and Caroline

Yoav clearly wants to be assimilated into the French society while he rejects his own Israeli roots, even though he thinks singer Celine Dion is French, when she is Canadian.  The clever script presents a French unmarried couple, Emile and Caroline,  who revive him when he is nearly frozen in his bath tub having been robbed of all his clothes and money. The French duo extends money, clothes, and friendship without asking anything in return. They do not exhibit any racism, in contrast to what Yoav experienced and was indoctrinated in Israel. Yoav is clearly not a religious Jew either.

The script moves gradually to existential nihilism with Yoav who once loved music to rebuke orchestra members, revoke friendship with an extraordinary and selfless French friend by asking him to return Yoav’s writings that Yoav had himself generously gifted earlier, and insult Yoav’s French wife who too had been his admirer (she even referred to him as ‘the monk’) and lover.

The silver lining of the bleak original screenplay is perhaps the symbolic references to the Greek epic poem by Homer called Illiad, specifically the final encounter between Hector and Achilles outside the ramparts of Troy besieged by the Greek army.  Yoav tells his French benefactors that his parents used to read to him the story of Hector when he was four years old, making Yoav to become increasingly fond of the Trojan hero who challenged Achilles to a single mortal combat. But Yoav’s parents refused to reveal the outcome of that encounter. It is well known that Achilles defeated Hector and killed him and then dragged his body around the ramparts of Troy. In the disturbing film Synonyms, we are shown a vehicle dragging a man in the empty streets of a modern city at night, much like Hector’s body was dragged to prove some bizarre point.

Emile arranges the marriage of Yoav and Caroline,
so that Yoav can become a French citizen

Perhaps director Nadav Lapid wants to project Yoav who leaves Israel as being somewhat similar to Hector who went out of the secure fortress of Troy, much against the wishes of his wife, only to be killed and humiliated in death.

The film Synonyms reminds you of the 2018 Chinese film An Elephant Sitting Still.  Both the films won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin film festival in successive years, and Synonyms went on to win the Golden Bear for the Best Film in competition at Berlin. Both films are nihilistic. Both films indirectly criticize the country of the respective director’s birth. Synonyms won the best cinematography award in Israel and understandably was not bestowed any major award. Synonyms is being screened at the Denver Film Festival kicking off soon.

The film Synonyms is not a film that extends universal appeal; yet it has won the hearts of the jury members at Berlin and members of Israel's film academy. What the film does indeed present positively is the French spirit of equality, liberty and fraternity.

P.S.  An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Note the inverted Eiffel Tower in Synonyms' poster above!

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